Is Dr. Google In The House? Cyberchondria – The New Digital Age Phenomenon

Have you done this? You have a symptom like an ongoing ache in your joints, or a persistent cough and some drainage, and you start to worry a little that something might be wrong. Instead of contacting your physician or that friend who is a nurse, you turn to your iPhone or your computer and ask Google to help you diagnose what is wrong.

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, you are in good company. These days, 7 out of 10 adult Internet users have searched online for information regarding a range of health issues and a whopping 1 in 3 searches are health related, making “Dr. Google” the go-to source for self-diagnosis. The average American likely spends 52 hours per year looking up health information online.

But using the Internet to self-diagnose can come at a price. Many doctors are finding that there is an increase in patient’s worries about their health due to the material they read online. If you find that your anxiety increases when you delve more deeply into medical websites and your concerns about your health escalate, you may be suffering from the latest plague of the Internet age: cyberchondria.

Understanding Cyberchondria

The term cyberchondria was coined by a journalist in the London Sunday Times back in the year 2000 to identify a phenomenon of individuals who have the deluded belief that they suffer from all the diseases featured on the Internet. Also known as the “Internet print-out syndrome”, it characterizes individuals who take a printout of information found on the Internet with them to doctor’s visits.

Cyberchondria is more loosely used these days to explain the excessive health anxiety that accompanies repeated online searching for health information. Many who research such information online determine that they have a serious medical problem when, more often than naught, one does not exist.

Think of cyberchondria as a wide-spread form of digital-age symptom search hyperchondria. The plethora of digital devices that are available plus the ease of access to the Internet right at your fingertips makes it easy to jump onto a search engine at any time of the day, several times a day, to self-diagnose each little ache and pain you might be experiencing. Such self-diagnosis can come at a cost to your mental health and your wallet.

The Cost of Cyberchondria

Using the Internet to diagnose your illness can increase your anxiety and cause a great deal of distress. Many websites have general information for the curious reader regarding symptoms and diseases along side much more in-depth, detailed information for those individuals who were diagnosed by a doctor and want to educate themselves about their illness. Using the detailed information to self-diagnose can lead to a false belief that you have a serious or incurable illness, causing you to worry and potentially worsen your symptoms.

If you become sold on your self-diagnosis, you may actually exhibit false symptoms of your assumed illness while masking other symptoms that a doctor would need to know about. The false symptoms may lead a doctor to incorrectly diagnose your true illness, causing you delays in healing and the need for more doctor visits and tests.

And while some doctors are open to reviewing research found on the Internet with a patient, most of the time it results in longer examination times and delays for other patients.

How to Avoid Cyberchondria

The number one way to avoid cyberchondria is to simply go to your doctor when you are feeling unwell or have chronic symptoms. Allow your doctor to diagnose your illness and prescribe a treatment.

The advantage to letting a doctor diagnose your illness over engaging in self-diagnosis is that you will save yourself a great deal of anxiety and worry. Once you have a diagnosis, then use the Internet to educate yourself about the illness and your care regimen.

Be careful, though, to only use reputable sources for medical information on the web.

Where to get medically accurate information?

If you are going to use the web to find health information, be sure to find reliable sites which provide medically accurate information. Here are three types of sites you may want to use:

  • Medical School and Teaching Hospital websites: these are health education sites that are associated with major medical schools and teaching hospitals. Try Mayo.com and health.harvard.edu.
  • Government-sponsored health sites: these sites have useful consumer information. Try hhs.gov, cdc.gov, and usa.gov.
  • Health organization websites: look for specialized health organization websites which end in .org. Try diabetes.org, cancer.org or als.org

Your best bet is to avoid blogs and online support groups. Much of the information found on these sites may be incomplete or inaccurate.

Overall, if you are prone to anxiety over the future and uncertainty, stay away from health-related Internet searches and maintain your peace of mind.

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